Expert take on TikTok’s trend contagion

TikTok has become one of the most downloaded apps and has nearly taken over Gen Z's life. Olivia Martin | Photo Editor

By Samantha Bradsky | Reporter

From eating cereal out of another person’s mouth to kissing your best friend to a plethora of dance routines, TikTok has created a unique realm for spreading thousands of unconventional trends.

The rapid and striking success of TikTok — a video-sharing social media platform — reveals a unique purpose and ability unmatched by preceding social media networks. It surpassed YouTube for average watch time and acquired the most positive reviews among apps in the U.S. in 2020 with 88% positive reviews.

Lorynn Divita — author and associate professor of human sciences and design at Baylor — attributed TikTok’s popularity to an area she studies called “trend contagion.”

“Trend contagion is exactly what it sounds like: the transmission of new fashions from person to person, similar to the way a cold or flu spreads,” Divita said.

TikTok was the most downloaded app of 2020, overtaking Facebook, and it is panning out to be the most popular app this year. Additionally, TikTok became the first app not owned by Facebook to reach — and surpass — three billion installs.

“Before, we had to observe a new trend in person before we adopted it or wait for it to be featured in a magazine or on a celebrity,” Divita said. “Trends now reach hundreds of thousands of people at exactly the same time, which means they blow up more quickly and larger than ever before.”

Divita said that TikTok has the distinct ability to popularize trends due to its unique algorithm.

“Its algorithm is obviously the subject of a lot of scrutiny, but there is no denying that it is very, very effective,” Divita said. “Also, TikTok is immersive — so much so that people can just stay engrossed in it for extended periods of time without even realizing they are doing so.”

TikTok has affirmed that — regardless of the creator’s popularity and previous success — if the creator’s video is good, the content will travel and mark the “For You” pages of its one billion users. A user’s “For You,” or recommendations, page is based on that user’s interactions with videos and the content they have viewed in the past.

“Trends aren’t limited to clothing,” Divita said. “We have trends in hair and beauty, trends in food, trends in home decor, and, because of TikTok, they are reaching a mass audience simultaneously. This leads to more viral items such as those Keiki Kona flowy fitness shorts that hit over the summer. I am still seeing those on campus.”

Divita said she is also interested in the concept of TikTok “challenges” and how they “make the rounds.”

Tracy, Calif., sophomore Romi Tsang said she has noticed the growth of the platform’s trends.

“Thirst traps fascinate me,” Tsang said. “You never perceive yourself [as a thirst trap] in real life, and it really is only behind a screen, which I think is a very weird concept. People present themselves in a different way to their phone screen than they do in real life.”

A “thirst trap” is a video intended to evoke a flattering and complimentary response from viewers.

“When it first hit, TikTok felt more authentic than the artificially curated perfection of Instagram, and for a time, it was,” Divita said. “But now, brands and grown-ups have caught on, so it is just a matter of time before a new social network springs up and young people rush to it so they can have a place of their own.”

Divita said that once social media platforms are infiltrated by the older generation, popularity begins to wane in the younger generation.

“MySpace, Friendster and TikTok’s ancestor, Vine, all experienced huge popularity before being replaced by a newer, cooler alternative, and there are all sorts of platforms that would love to be the next big thing,” Divita said. “It’s no great secret that what goes up, must come down.”